Commercial or Residential?

April 1, 2003
Judith Harris Fermoile, ASID

Commercial or Residential?

Perhaps you have heard this comment from peers or others in the design industry: "I focus on residential design, so I don't need to know the same information that commercial interior designers know." NCIDQ's 1998 "Analysis of the Profession" (Hale), a study that is undertaken every five years by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification, determined that there is no discernible difference between the knowledge that a "residential" interior designer and a "commercial" interior designer must have. The difference between the two areas is in the terminology that is used. For instance, an interior designer who works on commercial buildings might use the word "programming" to describe interviewing the client and determining what his or her needs are. This same work could be described by a residential interior designer as "needs assessment" or more simply "interviewing the client."Consider a related field to interior design: architecture. Do you hear people referring to themselves as a "residential architect" or "commercial architect"? It is highly unlikely because the profession of architecture has a base knowledge that all registered professionals must possess so they can provide their expertise to a single family home or a multi-story skyscraper. That does not mean that architects do not gain reputations for specializing in certain areas; they most certainly do. Similarly, an interior designer may develop a niche in a certain area—perhaps residential design. However, if that interior designer becomes highly successful in her work, it usually is only a matter of time until one of her clients will say, "You know, I am so pleased with all you have done in my home, I would love for you to design my new medical office." The professional interior designer should possess the knowledge, skills and abilities to design a medical office as easily as she creates safe and aesthetic design solutions for a home.A few years ago a long-time friend of mine was planning a major renovation to her home. Her architect had designed a beautiful addition and renovation, planning a large master bath and bedroom suite. I was walking through the gutted house with Susan and her contractor, and she showed me where the new bathroom would be located. The plans called for a 24-inch-wide door."Susan," I remarked, "you are only 50 years old and you have had two hip replacement surgeries within the past 15 years. You have also talked about your mother living with you some day. Let's, at minimum, make sure that your bathroom will be accessible to someone in a wheelchair or using a walker."We conferred with the contractor and he determined that he could easily fit a 32-inch wide opening at the bathroom entrance. I also made recommendations for flooring that would be slip-resistant and urged her to use a shower stall with grab bars and a built-in seat. Clients who are building a retirement home rely heavily on the expertise of a professional interior designer. Aging eyes, not to mention aging limbs, have difficulty maneuvering level changes and floor pattern changes. There is a wonderful scene in "Awakenings," a movie about Dr. Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist who is concerned with the ways in which individuals survive and adapt to different neurological diseases and conditions and what their experience can tell us about the human brain and mind ( In the movie, Robin Williams, who portrays Dr. Sacks, is working with an elderly patient and trying to get her to walk toward a window. Over and over she insists on stopping in one spot and will not move any further. The doctor looks down, and realizes that there is a black and white pattern over much of the floor, with a solid white border around the perimeter of the room. The patient will not step from the black and white patterned area to the solid white area. Robin Williams gets some black paint and continues the checkerboard pattern over to the window. The patient finally steps toward the window. Clearly, knowledge about how colors, textures and material changes affect an elderly person's safety within a home are important examples of how an interior designer brings value to residential design.Good lighting is another important factor in a home. Many houses have inadequate lighting in the kitchens, bathrooms and stairways. Improper lighting is an annoyance in the bathroom, and it is dangerous in a kitchen and stairway, where most falls in a home occur. Placing light fixtures so that one does not work in his or her shadow in the kitchen, and ensuring that footcandles are at the proper level throughout the rest of the areas, will help people of all ages be more safe in their own homes.Although color is often thought of as decorative, color selection can have a direct impact on human behavior within a space. For instance, it has been scientifically shown that a yellow bedroom will aggravate the symptoms of a child with ADD (attention deficit disorder). Wave lengths from the color red will cause a person's heartbeat and breathing to increase. As people age they perceive colors differently. Someone with older eyes not only has difficulty distinguishing between hues of similar value, but objects will often look as if they have a yellowish cast to them. Interior designers take into serious consideration the needs of their residential clients. If a client is building his or her "dream home" and hopes to live there for the rest of their life, there are several recommendations an interior designer is likely to make. These recommendations may include: * providing blocking in the walls so that grab bars can be added in the future to the toilet or shower* ensuring temperature and valve guards are installed on showers to avoid surges in hot or cold water* designing kitchens so they can easily be retrofitted to accommodate a wheelchair user* specifying materials that have minimum off-gassing or negative effects on people with asthma or mold allergies.A professional interior designer possesses knowledge, skills and abilities about many areas that affect the public's health, safety and welfare. This includes knowledge about residential and commercial building codes, lighting, specifying flooring materials, selecting non-toxic fabrics and furnishings, and designing spaces that are universally accessible for people of all ages and varying degrees of disability. Whether that knowledge is applied to a residential building or a commercial building is immaterial. The words used to describe the services that an interior designer offers to the owner of a commercial building or a residential building do not matter. What does count is the value a professional interior designer brings to making places safe for all people, wherever they dwell. Judith Harris Fermoile, ASID is a registered interior designer in Nevada and a member and past secretary/treasurer of the Nevada State Board of Architecture, Interior Design and Residential Design. She sits on the NCIDQ Board of Directors. NCIDQ is located at 1200 18th St. N.W., Ste. 1001, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 721-0220.

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